They Call It An Accident – Road Risk In Romania: Terror Across Transylvania (Part Two)

While driving in Transylvania I had trouble figuring out what was worse, fearing for my own life or watching so many others risk their own. Over several days I documented the following incidents while traveling around Transylvania by automobile:

A Litany Of Near Crashes – The Open Road Takes A Toll
* Two men trying to fix their broke down van at the beginning of a curve. One of whom decided it was a good idea to stoop down behind the bumper with his back to oncoming traffic as he stared confusedly at the rear bumper.

* A man riding his motor scooter the wrong way against traffic on the main road through a village. He did not look worried, only in a hurry. His stern gaze was fixed on a path only he knew to follow. This man gets extra credit for wearing a helmet.

*One driver almost causing a head-on collision because he decided to pass three cars all at once. Passing the first car was fine, the second a bit more dangerous and the third proved nearly fatal. An accident was avoided at the last moment only because the oncoming car slammed on its breaks to allow the offender to jump back into the correct lane. It was one of those moments where it may have been more frightening for onlookers than the offending driver. I imagined the sound of glass shattering, the shrill scraping of metal on metal and the screams of humans writhing in pain. Fortunately, this feat of frightened imaginings was just that. That did not stop me from putting hand to mouth and saying aloud “oh my god.” A life threatening car crash was avoided by a hair’s breadth.

* In the town center of Cristuru Secuiesc (Szekelykeresztur), while coming up to a stoplight one car tried to change lanes with another car beside it. This should have resulted in the other car being struck, but both vehicles swerved wildly to avoid each other by a few inches. This resulted in three cars standing improbably parallel to one another on a two-lane street. No one so much as shook a fist or honked their horn. The situation seemed to sort itself out.

* One of the most unforgettable moments came when a woman in a BMW passed just before the start of a curve. She tore past the vehicle in front of her with reckless abandon. There was little doubt in the five seconds or so that it took for her to complete the pass that she was hell bent on making it happen. I was less worried for her, then the potential innocent driver who might be coming the other way. Fortunately, no vehicle approached from the opposite direction.

Passing fancy - Distracted driving decisions abound in Transylvania

Passing fancy – Distracted driving decisions abound in Transylvania (Credit: modestine4.blogspot.com)

Getting Ahead – A Race To The End
These were just a few of the crazy things I saw or experienced on driving in Transylvania. This recklessness cannot just be passed off onto Romanian drivers. Our route took me and my wife through a majority Hungarian area. I had seen Hungarians do the same wild driving at times back in Hungary, but never with the degree of risk or recklessness I witnessed at what seemed like every other turn in Transylvania. And the litany of near crashes listed above does not account for all the endless distractions that would appear and disappear with little rhyme or reason along Transylvanian roads. Dogs were nearly run down by speed demon drivers on multiple occasions. Men rode horses down sidewalks, a rather delightful sight, until I considered that such distractions might cause me to lose my focus on driving. There is a good reason I saw so few people using cell phones while they drove. Such a distraction was a sure way to have an accident. This precaution had nothing to do with the law. I never saw the police ticketing a motorist. Instead, the few times I did spot a police car, there were two men in it looking as though they were doing their best not to pay attention to the cars roaring past.

The driving mentality in Transylvania could best be summed up as do whatever you can to get their faster. If someone could cheat death for a few seconds by jumping a car or three ahead they seemed to think chancing life was worth the risk. About the only positive thing I could say about driving in the region was that the roads – with a few notably nightmarish exceptions – were much better than I could have hoped for. They were serviceable, which by the standards of Eastern Europe makes them above average. This made them a double-edged sword because better roads meant faster drivers. I found it a source of fascination how we would be driving along, no one else in sight, when suddenly a vehicle would appear behind me. Within seconds it would be inches away from the rear bumper, veering slightly to the left in the hopes a pass was possible. This happened so many times that I became increasingly paranoid to the point where I was constantly glancing at the rearview mirror waiting for the next would be road racer to appear.

Patchwork - A rural highway in Transylvania

Patchwork – A rural highway in Transylvania (Credit: modestine4.blogspot.com)

The Cost Of Recklessness – Circumstantial Evidence
In four days of driving in a wide variety of circumstances – through villages, over mountains, flanked by dark forests, across slanting mountain meadows, on straightaways and infinitely twisting roads I only came upon a single accident. This was the most surprising part of my driving experience in Transylvania. On our final day we were entering a village on the outskirts of Medias. While coming down a hill we noticed the flashing lights of an ambulance and police car. In the middle of the road were two cars, one had crashed into the front side of the other. No one looked to be hurt, but the cars were likely totaled. The culprits stood on the roadside talking with the police. Several villagers had gathered on the sidewalk staring at the accident. It was hard to tell what had happened, but I am quite sure it involved someone in a hurry, sheer recklessness and the need to get ahead at all costs. This smashup was going to cost someone a small fortune in car repair, but it not did cost them their lives. At least not this time.

Click here for: Nervous Wrecks – Driving In Romania: Terror On The Way To Transylvania (Part One)

 

Nervous Wrecks – Driving In Romania: Terror On The Way To Transylvania (Part One)

The fear struck me as soon I awoke. We were planning to travel for several days in Transylvania. This meant driving in Romania. Romanian roads had a notorious reputation, the reputation of Romanian drivers (including ethnic Hungarians who live there) was just as bad. I had visions of crater sized pot holes swallowing automobiles in one fell plunge, crazed drivers daring death along every stretch of straight away and near miss experiences causing something akin to cardiac arrest. Winston Churchill is reputed to have said that being shot at without effect is one of life’s most exhilarating feelings, the same could be said for escaping unscathed from the near miss of a head on collision while driving in Romania. Many of my fears would turn out to be true. Only the roads would be a bit better than expected, but this lone positive had its drawbacks as well. A smooth surface offered lead footed drivers the dangerous option of frolicking for too long in the oncoming traffic lane. None of these fears dissuaded me from driving in Transylvania, instead they played out along roadways that have led to more death than Dracula’s castle.

The ride of your life - On Romanian roads

The ride of your life – On Romanian roads (Credit: Romania-Insider.com)

A Meandering Minefield – Road Risk In Romania
My wife and I crossed the Hungarian-Romanian border at one of the more remote border posts, just beyond the eastern Hungarian village of Letavertes. This had been a deliberate decision on our part. We wanted to avoid the busier Artand-Bors crossing close to the city of Oradea (Nagyvarad) due to the heavy traffic and longer wait times. Our choice turned out to be a good one as we cleared the border in half an hour, not bad for this non-EU national. The road beyond, which led to the small Romanian village of Sacueni (Szekelyhid), was well maintained. I would soon learn that this was little more than a Potemkin road ruse that lured the unwary traveler into a false sense of carefree driving. The route we took wound its way through progressively hiller terrain in the western Romanian region of Maramures. Thankfully traffic was light, this turned out to be a blessing because the road conditions were nightmarish. Smoothly surfaced roadway was in extremely short supply.

The road was a minefield of uneven patches and half-completed repairs. It was the worst stretch of pavement I have ever had the displeasure of driving upon. In some places the patches had been re-patched multiple times, elevating certain sections of the roadway above others, making for an insanely uneven surface. Potholes were not nearly as plentiful as one might imagine since the Romanian solution to road maintenance was to pile them high with more pavement. An endless array of humps was where rubber met the road. A lack of automobile traffic was more than made up for by the ubiquitous horse drawn wagon carts trotting along at a tepid pace, their drivers all but oblivious to the technological terrors roaring past them.

Reckless Rapidity – Life & Death In Passing
I found myself constantly swerving to dodge not just the wagons, but also bicycling villagers and wandering Roma families who took up more than half of one side of the road without a care that their life might be in imminent danger. The idea of risk was a foreign concept along this road. The goal on this route was to circumvent Oradea, then reconnect with the E60 east of that city near the town of Alesd (Elesd). Getting there became an increasing battle with the worsening road conditions as the quality eroded further when crossing over hillsides. The thickets of forest flanking the roadway made conditions more dangerous, reducing sightlines to a few hundred meters at most.

Suddenly, a delivery truck appeared behind me. It closed in on our little Suzuki with reckless rapidity.  The driver lacking any inhibition that might mitigate his impatience. Soon I was being tailed by a string of these runaway monsters always looking to pass on the slightest of straightaways. This left me both frightened and distracted, a dangerous combination. The prospect of becoming involved in a head on collision increased with each kilometer. Trying to navigate the pockmarked pavement was bad enough. Now I had the added problem of trying to manage a tailgater less than a car length from the rear bumper. We were one brake check from a severe case of whiplash or worse. Finally, we crested a hill on the downside of which was enough space to allow our chief tormenter enough space to pass. A couple of other trucks behind him soon did the same. My sense of relief was palpable. Then I realized that this was not an end, but just the beginning. More dangerous driving loomed on the horizon. I tried not to think what might occur in the coming days on these death dealing highways.

Road risk - On a rural road in Romania

Road risk – On a rural road in Romania

Survival Strategies – The Ride Of Your Life
We soon arrived at the E60. This should have been a relief, but it turned out to be the exact opposite. The traffic increased around Alesd. With the surge of motorists, came a reciprocal surge in speed and risk taking. The long straightaways, with a kilometer or more of sightlines, were invitations for repressed race car drivers to satisfy their deepest longings for competitive calamity. When an opportunity to pass presented itself, most drivers decided it was worth risking their lives and everyone else’s by attempting to go around as many cars as possible. Sometimes several cars would attempt this highway hocus pocus all at once. A line of two, three or four cars would wrong lane it together. Forming a sort of 100 kilometers per hour battering ram that could challenge all comers. This chain automobile migration would sort itself out only at the last moment.

Such a false sense of safety in numbers was terrifying to watch from behind. I repeatedly felt that I was headed to the scene of an accident that might include me. Crashes were narrowly avoided by the magnanimity of drivers in the opposing lane who were constantly asked to save innumerable lives, including their own, by slowing down to allow the offending car enough time to reenter the correct lane. I figured their forgiveness had much to do with the fact that they were afforded the same kind of service several times a trip. There was an art to this survival strategy, both sinister and beautiful, as cars chaotically jockeyed for position then suddenly fell back into line at the very last moment. A tapestry of nervous tension woven by four wheeled vehicles unfolded before my eyes. One that was perfected by legions of drivers on Romanian roadways through years of nerve wracking experience. I wondered if I would ever grow accustomed to this organized chaos. That thought scared me almost as much as the driving because only then would I understand what it means to take the ride of your life.

Click here for: They Call It An Accident – Road Risk In Romania: Terror Across Transylvania (Part Two)